The Doorway Effect: Why your brain won’t let you remember what you were doing before you came in here
I work in a lab, and the way our lab is set up, there are two adjacent rooms, connected by both an outer hallway and an inner doorway. I do most of my work on one side, but every time I walk over to the other side to grab a reagent or a box of tips, I completely forget what I was after. This leads to a lot of me standing with one hand on the freezer door and grumbling, “What the hell was I doing?” It got to where all I had to say was “Every damn time” and my labmate would laugh. Finally, when I explained to our new labmate why I was standing next to his bench with a glazed look in my eyes, he was able to shed some light. “Oh, yeah, that’s a well-documented phenomenon,” he said. “Doorways wipe your memory.”
Being the gung-ho new science blogger that I am, I decided to investigate. And it’s true! Well, doorways don’t literally wipe your memory. But they do encourage your brain to dump whatever it was working on before and get ready to do something new. In one study, participants played a video game in which they had to carry an object either across a room or into a new room. Then they were given a quiz. Participants who passed through a doorway had more trouble remembering what they were doing. It didn’t matter if the video game display was made smaller and less immersive, or if the participants performed the same task in an actual room—the results were similar. Returning to the room where they had begun the task didn’t help: even context didn’t serve to jog folks’ memories.
The researchers wrote that their results are consistent with what they call an “event model” of memory. They say the brain keeps some information ready to go at all times, but it can’t hold on to everything. So it takes advantage of what the researchers called an “event boundary,” like a doorway into a new room, to dump the old info and start over. Apparently my brain doesn’t care that my timer has seconds to go—if I have to go into the other room, I’m doing something new, and can’t remember that my previous task was antibody, idiot, you needed antibody.
Read more at Scientific American, or the original study.
I finally learned why I completely space when I cross to the other side of the lab, and that I’m apparently not alone.